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Heineken Cup 2008-09 - Group Preview

When the Heineken Cup groups were announced back in June, it was generally agreed that Leinster had one of the toughest groups. There was two-time winners Wasps, the impressive French out-fit Castres and perennial Leinster party-poopers Edinburgh who'd been rejuvenated under Andy Robinson. It was going to be a tough task to qualify.

Leinster start their campaign on the back of some decidedly indifferent form, with two wins and a draw from five matches leaving them fourth in the Magners League table. However Leinster's form is positively golden when compared to their group rivals who've all had awful starts to the season.

Edinburgh are second last in the Magner's League table with one win from five matches. Castres are also in second last place in the French Top 14 with one win and a draw from seven games. At least Wasps are only third from bottom in their league with one win from five. Even allowing for the fact that all three have injury problems this is remarkable stuff.

So does this mean Leinster should have it easy then? Unfortunately not! Just as we expect Leinster to raise their game for the Heineken Cup, we should also expect all three of the other teams to do the same. This will still be a brutally tough group. We look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of our opponents.

London Wasps

Strengths

The have an unparalleled ability to time their fitness training to peak in the months in the season that really matter i.e. March to May. This has contributed to an amazing record in finals, winning all of the last eight finals they've competed in. They've got one of the best coaching teams on the planet in Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards and they've an ability to transform the careers of players that were seemingly past their best. Rafael Ibanez, Phil Vickery and Simon Shaw all saw their careers revived since joining and they'll be hoping to repeat the trick this season with Serge Betsen and Mark Robinson. They have a number of fine home-grown players too in the likes of James Haskell, Tom Rees, Joe Worsley and Dominic Waldouck. Paul Sackey, Josh Lewsey and Tom Voyce are proven finishers and centre Ricky Flutey is a match-winner on his day.

Weaknesses

Their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. Their focus on peaking in the latter half of the season means they are perennial slow starters. However this season has been especially bad. The impact of the loss of Lawrence Dallaglio has been well documented, however the loss of Fraser Waters has also hit them hard. Nowhere near as heralded as Dallaglio, he was nonetheless hugely important both for his ability to organise the rush defense on the field and the knack of scoring tries in big games. His presence has been missed and some players have yet to develop the form of last season including Ireland's Eoin Reddan. Yet for all that, you'd be foolish to take them too lightly. They still retain the ability to raise their game on the day and it's instructive that their one win this season came against the league-leaders Leicester.

Key man: Danny Cipriani

Cipriani has made a remarkably quick recovery from a potentially career threatening ankle injury. If he hasn't been rushed back too quickly, he's a massive boost to a squad that's been struggling. Blessed with great pace and natural vision, he brings an X factor to Wasps that can transform them from defensive kings into a fine attacking team.

Castres Olympique

Strengths

First and foremost they have a coaching team that know the Leinster players very well in Jeremy Davidson and Mark McCall. Their record at home is pretty good in Europe mainly due to the intimidating atmosphere in the Stade Pierre-Antoine. They also had a typically big and tough pack lead by France captain Lionel Nallet, while All-Black back-row Chris Masoe has been an impressive addition. In the backs there is an international cast of talent with Australian Steve Kefu, Englishman Phil Christophers, Samoan Laloala Milford and Kiwis Kevin Senio, Cameron McEntyre and Brad Fleming. Full-back Romain Teulet is a consistent source of points from the boot.

Weaknesses

They don't seem to have advanced at all from last season, actually going backwards instead, and results have been very poor, especially at home which is normally such a stronghold. They can still raise their game on the day though; their one win was against Clermont.

Key man: Lionel Nallet

The captain is an old school, hard as nails second row. He excels in the lineout and is also a huge presence in the tight. He's the heart-beat of their side and will have to lead by example to haul them out of their poor form.

Edinburgh Rugby

Strengths

Coach Andy Robinson has created a fine team out of the mess he found when he first arrived at the club. He's done so out of a mixture of experienced journeymen like Matt Mustchin, Gavin Kerr and Ben Gissing and young tyros like Nick DeLuca, Ben Cairns and Ross Rennie. Throw in quality internationals like Mike Blair, Ali Hogg and Chris Paterson and it's an excellent team. Robinson has them well motivated and very well organised, their scramble defence is one of the best around. They play a high tempo game that seeks to use the full width of the pitch to wear the opposition down. This is especially effective in the large, wide-open pitch in Murrayfield.

Weaknesses

Their open playing style is also reflective of the fact that they're not that powerful up front. Their lineout is pretty tight but they can definitely be attacked in the scrum. If you can involve them in a tight forward dogfight they can definitely be got at. Even with the injuries they've had this season Robinson would have expected better results, the defeats away to the Dragons and Ulster will have hurt especially.

Key man: Mike Blair

The early favourite for the Lions test spot at scrum-half, Blair has shaken off the challenge of Chris Cusiter to becomes Scotland's number one. He has a terrific all-round game and can be a match-winner on his day.

So despite the vagaries in form of all four teams, this still promises to be a pool that will go down to the wire. It all starts this weekend with Leinster's trip to Murrayfield. If they can finally break the hoodoo and get a win there, then they'll be putting themselves in great shape for the rest of the pool.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2008-10-10

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